Substance Use and Abuse in Teens
Teen substance use is a problem that persists, but communities, schools and parents can play a crucial role in a coordinated plan of deterrence. Parents need to stay informed of the risks that teens face. Several patterns highlight the issues adults need to address in assisting teens:
Three main substances account for the majority of substance use and abuse by youth
Tobacco (in the form of cigarettes), alcohol, and marijuana have been the most widely used substances by teens for several decades. During the last several years, the use of each of these substances has decreased significantly, but substantial minorities of teens try these substances and engage in current use.
Statistics show that the majority of youth have tried cigarettes and alcohol by the end of their teen years, and 1 in 5 teens indicate current substance use. Significantly, the order in which teens are likely to try substances starts with tobacco, shortly followed by alcohol, and then marijuana, with youngsters starting experimentation around 12 years of age. For many youngsters, tobacco experimentation is a gateway to other substance use. This data suggests that all parents need to be alert to the possibility that their children will try substances and may move on to regular use.
Use of other substances follow trends
Just as fashions change, so do the substances with which teens get involved. Cocaine, crack, heroin, and club drugs such as ecstasy have been prevalent at times. In the last years, young people are also using prescription drugs, most notably painkillers, but also some psychiatric medications used to treat Attention- Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and anxiety and depressive disorders. Additionally, some kids seem ready to try any item or activity that can give them exciting sensations or an altered mental state. These latter items and activities include inhaling cleaning fluids or paint, self-induced oxygen deprivation by choking oneself for short periods of time or getting the breath squeezed out by someone else, and using pressurized air (used to clean electronic equipment) to knock out oxygen. All of these items or activities add a substance to the body that creates a changed mental status or deprive the brain of oxygen, which also creates a changed mental status. Informal contacts among teens and some Internet interchanges helps them find out about these trends and the "joys" associated with them.
Reasons teens turn to substances
In the early teen years, teens get involved in substances for two main reasons: curiosity and peer pressure. When the opportunity to try a substance presents itself, most kids are in small groups. Some in the group are likely to enjoy taking risks and seeking sensations that are exciting. These children are often the ones that seek out and obtain the substances from older teens or from supplies that they find at home or from relatives, in the case of tobacco and alcohol. Others may be there as part of the social cluster and get exposed through the actions of their sensation-seeking friends. The children motivated by curiosity often wish to find out what all the talk and fuss is about. They may want to know what it is like to feel high or drunk or what cigarettes taste like. Others in the group may feel pressured to participate either through direct request or because they do not wish to stand out as the only one not going along.
From first use, the brief altered states associated with substances often inspire teens to continue use. Youngsters often enjoy being high or drunk and will frequently seek out repeat experiences. Once youngsters are aware of these experiences, they sometimes continue to seek altered states as a way to escape problems and seek pleasure that they are not gaining elsewhere in their lives. In the case of tobacco, early experiences are rarely pleasant, so peer pressure or the belief that use is a status symbol often keeps teens involved. Soon after initial exposures, however, teens are very prone to addiction to tobacco, which occurs with greater speed than in adults.
Reprinted with the permission of the NYU Child Study Center. © NYU Child Study Center.
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